Watch The Heretic, Unity’s latest beautiful sci-fi short

The latest jaw-dropping demo from Unity, one of the most widely used game engines in the world, isn’t just an example of how developers can use new shadow effects or rendering tools. It’s also a darkly beautiful philosophical journey stuffed into a short animated film. “I’m fascinated by technology and its impact on us as humans; our psychology, sense of self-identification, and our deeply ingrained sense of spirituality,” explains Veselin Efremov, creative director at Unity’s demo team. “I thought it would be fun to explore these existential and philosophical themes in the guise of a simpler adventure story.”

The new short film is called The Heretic, and it lasts less than four minutes. In it, a man in a beat-up leather jacket, one that would look pretty good on Ryan Gosling in a new Blade Runner, makes his way down a dingy hallway, with a strange mechanical substance seemingly following his every thought. Eventually, after a series of jarring shifts that warp the world around him in strange ways, he appears at the open mouth of a cave, with a towering futuristic cityscape dominating the horizon.

According to Efremov, the concept for the demo began with a goal that has long troubled animators and game designers: building a virtual person that looks and feels real. “Creating realistic digital humans is a problem we’ve always been curious about, but we’ve stayed away from so far,” he explains. “In previous demos, the stories were always about characters that don’t look human. This was an interesting challenge, as they all deal heavily with the themes of humanity and what makes us human. However, in recent years Unity’s capabilities have improved so much that we thought The Heretic was the right time to get our feet wet with this problem.”

Watch The Heretic, Unity’s latest beautiful sci-fi short

Unity has a growing history of tackling these kinds of problems by creating beautiful demos. In fact, the company has an internal team dedicated entirely to building projects like The Heretic; they act sort of like an indie studio within Unity, one tasked with pushing the limits of what a small team can do with the technology. As new features and capabilities are added to the engine, the team tackles increasingly ambitious projects. Last year’s Book of the Dead, for instance, was a haunting exploration of interactive storytelling, using relatively new tools like photogrammetry. But with the historically daunting goal of lifelike characters, Efremov and his team decided to shift back to a more straightforward cinematic for The Heretic.

For game developers and film animators, there are plenty of improved technologies on display in the short movie to get excited about; things like 4D capture and what Unity calls a “high definition render pipeline,” which essentially means higher quality shadows, reflections and other important visual effects. But for everyone else, it’s just a gorgeous vision of a cyberpunk future. Part of the reason for this is the way the team approaches these demos; it’s not just a technical showcase, but a fully realized piece of fiction, with all of the worldbuilding and storytelling that entails.

“In order to create a 5-10 minute cinematic experience, we need to know the world in a lot of detail — its history and future, characters, political and economic situation, and so on,” says Efremov. “Just like with our previous demos, we show a tiny glimpse of a much, much larger world.” A lot of that effort went into designing the futuristic technology on display, which has a grittier, more tactile feel to it compared to what we see in a lot of science fiction.

“One thing that I thought would be fun to play with was to explore a human-machine interface that’s not based on sight, but touch — a purely tactile experience,” Efremov explains. “We already have a bit of that with smartwatches, and the Braille Alphabet for blind people, so we took that to the next level with the arm device on our protagonist character. It was also interesting to explore robot tech that’s not based on a single chassis, but consists of composite semi-independent elements that can assemble into different configurations depending on the task at hand.”

Watch The Heretic, Unity’s latest beautiful sci-fi short

The Heretic is a glimpse at what’s possible for a dedicated team using Unity, though you can’t exactly go out and create a demo like this yourself right now. As an internal studio, Efremov and his team have access to features that aren’t quite ready for the consumer-facing version of the game engine. That said, what you see in the video above isn’t that far off.

“Most of the technology is available today,” says Silvia Rasheva, the producer on the demo team. “The project is based on Unity 2019.1, which releases soon, and some of the improvements we’ve made are slated for Unity 2019.2.” The team began working full time on The Heretic back in September, though the goal is for it to be much easier for regular users to create a similar work. “Any project that we do will try to tackle some things that are new and don’t have a clear path to follow,” she adds. “It is difficult to plan for how long it would take to explore those unexplored territories, but the idea is that it should never take our users as long as it took us.”

It’s also not complete just yet. Efremov describes the cinematic released today as the opening to a larger piece. “The first part of the film, which we’re showing now, just contains the setup and introduces our characters,” he says, “as well as a hint that there is more to it, which will become apparent in the full film.”